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From Violence to Coercive Control:
Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
A report by Stephen Fisher
White Ribbon Policy Research Series No.3
White Ribbon
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
The White Ribbon Campaign is the largest global
male‑led movement to stop men’s violence against women.
It engages and enables men and boys to lead this social
change. In Australia, White Ribbon is an organisation
that works to prevent violence by changing attitudes and
behaviours. The prevention work is driven through social
marketing, Ambassadors and initiatives with communities,
schools, universities, sporting codes and workplaces.
The White Ribbon Policy Research Series is intended to:
• Present Contemporary evidence on violence against
women and its prevention;
• Investigate and report on new developments in
prevention locally, nationally and internationally; and
• Identify policy and programming issues and
provide options for improved prevention strategies
and services.
The White Ribbon Policy Research Series is directed by
an expert reference group comprising academic, policy
and service experts. At least two reports will be published
each year and available from the White Ribbon website at
Title: From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s
Abuse of Women.
Author: Stephen Fisher.
White Ribbon Policy Research Series, Publication No. 3.
ISBN 978-0-9871563-6-7
© 2011. All rights reserved.
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
Social problems are understood and responded to in terms of how they
are named. This naming has direct consequences for those experiencing
the issue and those responsible for finding a solution. Naming an issue
includes the words that are used to describe a particular social problem;
in this case men’s violence against women.
The choice of words is always a political, value-laden decision and based on
theoretical premises. There are a number of troubling consequences of this naming
process. For example, issues can be named in a way that:
minimises the seriousness of the problem;
makes the issue fit the solution already decided upon;
c)allows some action on the issue but avoids doing anything that might challenge
the benefits of power holders;
akes it appear abstract so that it is hard to know exactly what one is for or
against; or
rovides equal weight to conflicting views, thereby invoking doubt in the public
about what is actually happening.1
For any organisation that places emphasis on awareness raising it is crucial that there
is a clear sense of awareness of what and awareness to what ends. When we are told
that men should ‘end their silence’, and start ‘speaking out’ what exactly should they be
talking about in terms of violence prevention?
In the emotional and contested area of men’s violence against women there has been
a long, complex and often covert struggle over how to name this issue. To name men’s
violence against women in a way that reflects the complex nature and dynamics of the
violence, including the relationship and social context in which a man perpetrates this
violence, there are a number of key points that men involved in men’s violence prevention
should understand. These include the following:
violence is gendered
b)violence is primarily a social and structural problem, not an individual
or medical one
c)violence involves processes of coercive control rather than only acts causing
physical injury
men’s physical violence against women is a crime
perpetrators act in dynamic and strategic ways.
Each of these points can be best addressed by taking a profeminist stance on men’s
violence against women. Such a stance “… acknowledges the gendered nature of this
violence; addresses the complex nature of power, status and inequality between women
and men in our society; and is committed to eliminating both this violence and its impact
to improve the lives of women and children.” (Costello 2005).
ee, for example, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke
to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
Gendering Violence
Most terms used to describe the types of violence women experience hide the everyday
reality for many women throughout the world that the perpetrators of this violence
against women, and indeed even against other men, are men. Gender-neutral language
is continually used; for example, family violence, domestic violence, intimate partner
violence, violence in the home, sexual assault, and community-based violence. Each of
these terms masks the reality that the overwhelming majority of these forms of violence
are gendered, that is, they are perpetrated by men upon women. Even when the issue is
gendered by referring to violence against women, the gender of the perpetrator is often
omitted. However, there is also a ‘slippage’ that occurs sometimes when men’s violence
against women is named. While men’s violence against women is named, there is often
a more general call to oppose all forms of violence, whoever is the victim or perpetrator,
thereby undermining gendered understandings. For example men speaking out publicly
have been heard to say, “I am against violence against women. I believe all women, and
indeed all students, deserve the right to feel safe and secure on university campuses and
move about freely without the threat of violence.” This is not to argue against challenging
all forms of violence. However, we need to be conscious that in emphasising all forms of
violence, we unintentionally may undermine our focus on men’s violence against women.
Such a slippage occurs because there is a reluctance to recognise that men’s
violence against women happens because individual men are supported to perpetrate
this violence by the social context of gendered inequalities in a patriarchal society.
Ignoring these inequalities is both a symptom and outcome of seeing men’s violence
against women primarily as a medical or individual issue.
Medicalising or individualising violence
Many of the ways that men’s violence against women is commonly presented either
implicitly or explicitly reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with the perpetrator
(and sometimes the family or even the victim) that needs addressing. It is said that he may
have a problem with anger, alcohol, communication skills, conflict resolution, childhood
trauma, or even have ‘sexist attitudes’.
This way of naming the problem results in solutions that diagnose these perpetrators
with some kind of ‘disorder’ or ‘problem’ and then devise a therapeutic intervention to
‘fix’ them. Thus we now have a whole service system dedicated to providing ‘behaviour
change’ programs for men to work on their issues. In this way, strangely, violent male
perpetrators become equal clients of the government’s service system as their female
victims; which explains why we can see publications that refer to ‘the needs of those
affected by family violence’.
While we do need to shift and challenge the sexist beliefs of men, simply suggesting that
we could one by one retrain each Australian man to think differently keeps the focus on
individuals. Rather, we must recognise that such attitudes are supported and reinforced
in two important ways. Firstly our dominant culture and everyday social norms support
men’s superiority and women’s inferiority. Secondly it is not necessarily the case that men
are merely ill-informed. There are distinct advantages for men to continue to hold and act
on these beliefs, not the least of which is control over women. So while violence may be
perpetrated by individuals this is done within the context of wider social norms.
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
Violence as Criminal
Naming men’s violence as an individual problem can ignore the fact that much of men’s
violence against women involves criminal acts. While it is true that there are a range of
controlling strategies used by men against women that are not strictly illegal, it is still
the case that many are – for example assault, sexual assault, stalking, and breaches of
intervention orders. Too often our justice or service system, and community members,
disregard the criminal nature of these actions. Imagine the community outrage likely if
other types of crime were addressed in the same way as male violence against women,
in this hypothetical adaptation of a men’s violence against women promotional brochure:
“Rod’s change of behaviour after participating in the program has encouraged him
and the local bottle shop manager (a former victim of a hold up where Rod used a
sawn-off shotgun) to undertake the trust skills program together as they feel it also
will help them move on.
Rod was referred to the program when he called crimhelp mensline which provides
advice to men on a range of felonies including armed robbery, drug trafficking and
car theft.”
I have only changed the type of crime here and even though men’s violence against
women is far more dangerous and damaging, most of us would be outraged to consider
the idea of supporting armed robbers in such a way which denies the criminality of their
violence. However, this approach is commonplace in Australia today. It is partly the denial
of such violence as a crime that helps maintain the abuse and degradation of women and
supports men who feel safe in the knowledge that they are more than likely going to get
away with it.
Even programs and campaigns attempting to reduce men’s violence against women often
do not recognise its criminality, and instead refer to it as merely ‘unacceptable’.
While it is important that men’s physical violence against women is appropriately
responded to as a crime, this approach on its own has a number of shortcomings.
Focussing only on isolated incidents of assault does not help reduce the abuse and
degradation experienced by women.
Avoiding the narrow focus on physical incidents
Another key problem has arisen through the imprecise use of the term ‘violence’ to
describe men’s abuse of women. While there has been some recognition that the term
encompasses more than physical harmful acts and may refer to things such as emotional,
sexual, financial and spiritual violence, the problem is that whenever people say “violence
against women” the risk is that they are primarily referring to physical acts that cause
bodily injury.
There are two immediate issues with focussing only on the physical forms of violence.
First, it has allowed an argument of gender symmetry: that is the argument that women
are just as likely to hit men as the reverse. There is now a website devoted to promoting
this view in Australia. While there is evidence of women using physical violence, often
this can be understood in terms of self-defence. But to argue over the facts about who
uses physical violence against whom most often misses the key issue of the way that
women experience violence from men as a tool of control or entrapment.
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
Second, the focus on physical acts allows a distinction to be made between good
and bad men. For example, some people may say that most well-meaning men do not
perpetrate physical or sexual violence against women. This allows men to believe that if
they are not hitting women, then they are not violent and are not the target of violence
prevention efforts. In fact many women victims report that they feel most trapped and
fearful when the frequency of physical violence decreases.
People who work with both victims and perpetrators are aware that violence is one
tool among many that the perpetrator uses to gain greater power in the relationship in
order to deter or require specific actions from women, win arguments, or demonstrate
their dominance. The term coercive control usefully describes a whole pattern of
strategies employed by a man against a woman. Such strategies occur in an ongoing,
even relentless pattern including isolation, intimidation, belittling, humiliation, threats,
withholding of necessary resources such as money or transportation, and abuse of the
children, other relatives, or even pets. The result for most women is an experience of
entrapment, of having every aspect of their life controlled. Evan Stark (2009) argues that
men’s violence against women is best understood as analogous to a form of hostage
taking rather than an assault incident.
When violence is understood within this way, even relatively minor acts of physical abuse,
for example, a slap on the knee or an arm pinch, can have the impact of reinforcing
the woman’s trapped state. In fact, rather mundane types of harm are often employed
routinely and strategically by perpetrators as they are less likely to be detected by
onlookers, authorities, friends and family and make it harder for the woman to seek help
or escape.
Focussing only on physical acts of violence also obscures the main means men use
to establish control by the micro regulation of everyday behaviours associated with
stereotypic female roles, such as how women dress, cook, clean, socialise, care for their
children, or perform sexually.
In this way it becomes clearer that men’s violence against women is a much more
complex issue than often thought. A picture emerges that individual perpetrators are not
deviant or simply possess inappropriate attitudes but that their actions are strategic and
supported by broader inequalities between men and women throughout our society.
Recognising the dynamic and strategic actions of the perpetrator
So men’s violence against women is not simply the action of a bad (or mad) man losing
his temper and hitting his ‘loved-one’. Nor is the issue one of men simply needing to
develop more respect for women. It is true that perpetrators have little respect for women
but the central issue is their desire for control over women rather than their lack of
respect. The issue is one of systematic power inequalities and a society that supports
men’s entitlement to a range of gender privileges.
Therefore, it is important to recognise that men who seek to coercively control women do
so because the range of benefits are high and the risks, of being caught or stopped, are
low. The benefits to men are great: he is more likely to be serviced, have food prepared
for him, have the house cleaned, have children prevented from disturbing him, have sex
on demand. He is likely to gain material benefits, including money and other resources.
He can keep her under control to prevent any risk she may have affairs or seek support
from friends or family.
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
Men use a range of techniques to achieve coercive control. One of the most valuable
and commonly used techniques is the disguise. This means that men will behave and
present one way when abusing the woman in private (a terroriser), and very differently
when in public, at work or socialising (a charmer). This ability to put on a disguise not
only prevents people detecting his abuse but also acts to confuse and isolate the woman
further. She thinks, ‘maybe there’s something wrong with me because he’s acting so
nice with them.’ In fact in social situations he is cleverly able to act both as a respectable
member of society while sending secret intimidating signals to the woman that only
she will understand. For example, in this American example even a sweatshirt can be
a weapon:
Cheryl was the star pitcher for her factory softball team. After several innings when
she pitched well, her boyfriend, Jason, would come onto the field and offer Cheryl
her sweatshirt, saying, “Darling, you’re cold. Why don’t you put this on?” To the
dismay of her teammates, Cheryl would “fall apart.” Cheryl’s teammates interpreted
Jason’s gesture as caring. But to Cheryl, the message was that she had violated an
agreement not to make him jealous. The sweatshirt was his warning that, because
of her infraction, she would have to cover up her arms after he beat her. Cheryl’s
“mistake” was to draw attention to herself by striking out the opposing batters.
She quickly corrected this fault by falling apart. She was also too frightened to
pitch well.
(Stark 2009, p.229)
The particularly private nature of such ‘cleverness’ makes it very hard for many of us
even to detect men’s violence against women. Even worse, some men are able to
express attitudes supportive of gender equality and respect for women while continuing
to perpetrate abuse. Many well-intentioned education programs make the mistake of
assuming that positive attitude change is the best sign of success. Instead we need to
be careful to use measures that are indicative of improvements in women’s real safety
and rights resulting from men’s actual daily relations with women.
Going along with such strategic thinking is the ability men have to justify or minimise the
harm of their actions. As a result even the learning from a well-structured and engaged
session on men’s violence against women can have unintended consequences: “… after
an hour-long session, one of the male participants thanked the facilitator and said: “It is
very helpful to talk about rape. Some men here have raped women. By talking about it,
men won’t feel bad about what they have done” (EngenderHealth 2002).
The dominant sense of manhood in Australia is built on the idea of being tough, in
control, competitive and smart. Coercive control is the logical outcome of enacting this
unfortunately commonplace form of masculinity.
Therefore, men who are committed to supporting this important work must continuously
strive to listen to and read the work of feminists who have worked tirelessly for decades
for gender equality.
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
Opportunities for effective advocacy
Recognising the complexity of men’s violence against women and naming it more
accurately gives men who advocate for women’s rights for freedom and safety a
much clearer focus for action. Speaking out now can move from a vague call to
action to specifically:
a)Ensuring that all work clearly names the gender of both the perpetrator and victim
of violence;
b)Challenging explanations or responses that tend to medicalise or individualise the
c)Recognising the criminality of much of men’s violence against women;
d)Providing a more accurate and broader understanding that violence is one
strategy of coercive control;
Pointing out the strategic and covert ways that perpetrators disguise their actions.
Finally, a proper understanding of men’s violence against women is important for
effective action.
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
Costello, M., 2005. The Disappearing ’F’ Word: Feminism and Australian Government
Violence against Women Policies? Women Against Violence: An Australian Feminist
Journal, (17), p.41.
Engender Health, 2002. The Men As Partners Program In South Africa:
Reaching Men to End Gender BasedViolence and Promote HIV/STI Prevention.
Available at:
[Accessed October 24, 2011].
Stark, E., 2009. Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. 1st ed.,
Oxford University Press, USA.
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women
White Ribbon
White Ribbon From Violence to Coercive Control: Renaming Men’s Abuse of Women